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Human Costs of Military Intervention

Human Costs of Military Intervention

Photo credit: PAN Chaoyue

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Kisangani, E. F., & Pickering, J. (2017). The human consequences of foreign military intervention. Defence and peace economics, 28(2), 230-249.

Talking Points

  • Between 1960 and 2005, 106 countries have suffered reduced quality of life due to foreign military interventions.
  • In both democracies and non-democracies, foreign military interventions reduce physical quality of life to 20% of what it was before the intervention.
  • In former non-democracies, the annual growth rate of physical quality of life post-intervention is 68% higher than before military intervention—most likely due to the reformation or removal of ineffective and/or brutal governments.


Over recent decades there has been a push in the academic community to understand more about the human consequences of armed conflict. This study seeks to add to that understanding by analyzing past foreign military interventions and their influence on short- and long-term quality of life in the areas directly affected by war. Previous studies have found that armed conflict, of any size or scope, is detrimental to short-term quality of life during and directly after the violence occurs. However, there is some disagreement regarding the long-term consequences of military intervention and the lasting effect on quality of life after armed conflict has subsided. This research investigates whether large-scale (1000+ armed forces) foreign military interventions have positive or negative effects on physical quality of life (PQOL) in conflict areas, as well as whether these effects can be explained by the character of the target government (democratic or non-democratic).

The distinction between democratic and non-democratic governments is important because the authors argue that people living under democratic governments are more likely to have higher PQOL due to a system of government that holds political leaders accountable to their constituents. Thus, when quality of life decreases, people living in a democracy have a direct line to their representatives to voice their grievances and/or remove elected officials from power. Alternatively, non-democratic governments offer little to no political representation or avenues to voice grievances. Power is usually held by a limited few who often lack the incentive to deliver adequate public services or build the infrastructure needed to increase quality of life for their citizens. Noting the differences between democracies and non-democracies, the authors speculate that PQOL will show the most improvement when military intervention leads to government transition from non-democracies to democracies—leading the authors to the following hypotheses:

  1. In democratic target countries, large-scale foreign military interventions reduce physical quality of life (PQOL) both during and after the intervention.
  2. In non-democratic target countries, large-scale foreign military interventions reduce physical quality of life (PQOL) in the short term but improve it in the long run.

To test their hypotheses, the authors use the International Military Intervention dataset to account for every foreign military intervention between 1960 and 2005, with over 1,000 “boots on the ground” soldiers, explicitly challenging a government or its policies. In this time period, a large-scale military intervention occurred nearly every year, and many years during the 1960s, 1970s, and 2000s saw up to five interventions per year. The authors then identify six key ways in which foreign military intervention can directly reduce PQOL in target countries, although they note there are many more ways armed conflict can affect a local population. Areas directly involved in combat are most likely to see decreases in PQOL, but problems often reverberate across the country depending on the length and severity of the conflict.

  1. Intervention can weaken a target government and other domestic institutions, reducing their ability to provide public services or forcing the government to redirect PQOL resources to the military.
  2. Intervention can damage physical infrastructure (hospitals, schools, roads, industrial plants, communication networks, etc.). Public health will diminish if access to providers is disrupted, literacy rates will go down when schools are destroyed, and access to goods and services will be affected when roads are blocked.
  3. Intervention can produce internally displaced people that can overwhelm operating health and education services.
  4. Intervention can lead to a breakdown in the rule of law, potentially increasing the rate of looting, violence, and other criminal activity.
  5. Intervention can damage the local environment, reducing access to potable water and arable land.
  6. Consequences of any of the above may result in physical and/or psychological trauma.

The physical quality of life (PQOL) is determined by following available data on life expectancy, literacy rates, and infant mortality before and after the interventions take place. They also include gross domestic product (GDP) per capita due to the observed positive effect financial resources have on quality of life. The military interventions are then examined to identify correlations between PQOL and the democratic/non-democratic nature of the target government.

The results of the study show that, in both democracies and nondemocracies, PQOL decreases during and directly after a foreign military intervention. The distinction between democracies and former nondemocracies emerges, however, in long-term trends: while democracies’ PQOL growth rates are gradual and level out once these countries have re-attained their pre-intervention PQOL levels, former non-democracies experience steep PQOL growth rates well after their pre-intervention PQOL levels have been surpassed. In democracies, once PQOL levels are back at pre-intervention levels, annual PQOL growth rates remain similar to growth rates before intervention. This is most likely due to the established governmental systems and the physical and social infrastructure common in more democratic governments, which translates to higher baseline PQOL levels. In former non-democracies, military intervention reduces PQOL in the short term but boosts annual PQOL growth in the long term. In former non-democracies, the annual PQOL growth rate averages 68% higher than the growth rate before military intervention. The authors argue that this is most likely due to the reformation or removal of ineffective and/or brutal governments that were targeted by the military intervention. With the old government out of the way, a potentially more democratic government can provide increased access to the services and infrastructure that allow for greater quality of life.

Contemporary Relevance

It is important to note the military interventions of the last 12 years that are absent from this article’s data set. According to this research, in the years following a foreign military intervention there is a marked increase in physical quality of life in former non-democracies. However, almost all contemporary cases of military intervention, including those in Libya, Iraq, Yemen, and Syria (some of which, as air wars, wouldn’t meet this study’s criteria for a “military intervention”), have experienced an uptick in violence and instability and a corresponding decrease in quality of life. Likewise, recent attempts of foreign military intervention to force regime change also lack successful outcomes or apparent exit strategies—to say nothing of the fact that removing a party or person from power through violent force is a particularly ironic path to justice when the goal or justification for an intervention is to prevent extrajudicial crimes in the first place. History, and academic scrutiny, has shown that military intervention will make the overall situation worse and reduce the prospects for constructive conflict transformation. Moreover, while lives might be saved somewhere, additional lives will be taken—a military intervention will always take innocent lives. Finally, one must also consider if all viable nonviolent alternatives to a military intervention have been thoroughly examined and applied. One can certainly argue that using those instead of military intervention would have a higher likelihood of improving PQOL in the short and long run

Practical Implications

The factors measured in this study represent access to services that may improve quality of life, but only for those left alive to benefit from them. This study does not address the severe social, economic, and emotional toll that arises from the loss of life due to foreign military interventions. Although foreign military interventions may push former non-democracies to higher PQOL growth than experienced before intervention, the social and economic burden of a decreased population from civilian and military deaths, the destruction of infrastructure, the multi-generational trauma, and the years required to rebuild, come at a cost that can never be justified.

Furthermore, the potential for PQOL growth should not be construed as a justification for intervention or a positive outcome. What went unsaid in this research are the many nonviolent alternatives to intervention that have proven to be much more effective than violence, with drastically less human, economic, and social costs.

Ultimately, the most practical application for this research is to examine the utility and morality of military intervention, at any scale. As late historian Howard Zinn stated, “In between war and passivity there are a thousand possibilities.” With the tremendous advances in the field of peace and conflict studies comes evidence that those possibilities work. If we don’t use them, it is not because they are unavailable. The military option needs to be taken off the table, otherwise all the other approaches are directly undermined. Below is a non-exhaustive list of viable, nonviolent alternatives to military intervention:

  • Arms embargoes
  • Ending all military aid
  • Civil society support, nonviolent actors
  • Sanctions
  • Working through supranational bodies (e.g. UN, ICC)
  • Ceasefires
  • Aid to refugees (relocate/improve proximal camps/ repatriate)
  • Pledging no use of violence
  • Withdrawal of military
  • Nonviolent conflict workers
  • (Transitional) justice initiatives
  • Meaningful diplomacy
  • Confronting violence-supporting beliefs
  • Increasing women’s participation in social and political life
  • Accurate information/fact-checking
  • Separating perpetrators from support base–addressing the grey area
  • Banning war profiteering
  • Peacebuilding engagement; reframing the either/or us/them choices
  • Effective policing
  • Nonviolent civil resistance
  • Information gathering and reporting
  • Public advocacy
  • Conciliation, arbitration, and judicial settlement
  • Human rights mechanisms
  • Humanitarian assistance and protection
  • Economic, political and strategic inducements
  • Monitoring, observation, and verification
  • Unarmed civilian peacekeeping
  • Conflict resolution framework
  • Inclusive good governance

Keywords: costs of war, military intervention, quality of life

The above analysis is from Volume 2, Issue 3, of the Peace Science Digest.


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